Have a drink with: Claire Heliot
“Sentimentalist and lion tamer.”
Ask her about: herding cats
In 1905, the New York Hippodrome opened its doors with a banner performance of A Yankee Circus on Mars, a freewheeling half-circus, half-opera in which the King of Mars, acting as an intergalactic talent scout of sorts, comes to Earth to save a failing New England circus. A splendid spectacle, the show featured an ensemble of hundreds of actors wearing grand robes and frolicking amidst fifty-foot dragon sculptures, live elephants and decadent garden sets. Its star was a lion tamer named Claire Heliot, making her major American debut.
A Yankee Circus on Mars had snapped up Heliot for good reason: she was a sensation in the turn-of-the-century press, journalists marveling over this fair-haired young woman who, alone in the ring in a white satin gown, commanded the attention of a dozen lions. In her showpiece act, Heliot set an elegant table and invited the lions to sit with her, feeding each in turn a hunk of horseflesh with her own fingers, and as a closing flourish offering them “her own pretty head as a delectable morsel for dessert.” (The dinner guests respectfully declined this course.) Heliot’s lions agreeably performed with a group of boar hounds, doing tricks and pulling the dogs about in a chariot; and then in an act that seemed to defy both nature and physics, the lions Sascha and Nero walked from opposite sides of a tightrope towards each other, pausing to balance nose-to-nose in the center.
Heliot would lie down across the bodies of four reclining lions, pose for portraits in her boudoir cuddling the mane of a massive male, and play with the lions as though they were happy kittens. She typically finished her act by slinging a 350-pound male over her shoulders like an overgrown scarf and triumphantly striding from the ring.
Press headlines described Heliot as “frail but fearless.” She was neither; but they did not know what else to say.
Have a drink with: Anna Jarvis
Don’t even get her started on “Candy Day.”
Ask her about: Her mother.
Anna Jarvis was a public school teacher and devout Methodist, and widely regarded as one of the inventors of the Mother’s Day holiday. She would not seem to be the type of person who would try to flip off a room of candy manufacturers, but history is full of surprises.
Have a drink with: William Banting
Keto, paleo, intermittent fasting? Nope: BANTING.
Ask him about: before and after pics
When the Paleo diet became popular in the early oughts and the ketogenic diet more recently supplanted it as a nutritional craze, keen-eyed historians noticed something familiar about these diets’ recommendations to hork down all the meat you can get your mitts on, guilt-free: specifically, that it wasn’t especially new. Was this all that different, they wondered, from the low-carb, high-fat diet Dr. Robert Atkins had first published in 1972? Was this just a forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress?
To which I say: of course not. It’s a HUNDRED-and-forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress. I’m over at Narratively today with more about William Banting, the Victorian royal undertaker who, yes, popularized low-carb dieting.
Have a drink with: Jumbo
The Children’s Giant Friend
Ask him about: bath time in the Thames
There’s one conspicuous problem with the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo and Tim Burton’s remake, released last week: the elephant’s name is not, in fact, Dumbo.
The little elephant with the big ears is, in fact, given a family name when he is born, and Mrs. Jumbo’s baby is christened Jumbo, Jr. (The mocking nickname comes about when his giant ears are discovered.) This establishes Dumbo in the lineage of a real circus animal – the mighty Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s prize African elephant. In 1941, when the original Disney film came out in theaters, Jumbo was still within fifty years’ living memory – and indeed, a fair swath of adult audience members were likely to have remembered seeing Jumbo as children on circus day, as the Greatest Show on Earth wound its way across America.
When P.T. Barnum secured him from the London Zoo, where he was known as the “children’s friend” for the rides he would give to young zoo visitors, Jumbo became the undisputed star of the circus, elevating the Barnum shows to an even greater level of cultural prominence.
Here are a few things you may not know about Dumbo’s famous patriarch.
Have a drink with: Daylight Saving Time
Spring forward, fall back.
Ask about: How do I change the clock in my car, again?
You may think you have it bad this week, with Daylight Saving Time going into effect: it’s hard to get going in the dark mornings, who knows which clocks you forgot to change, and if the news is to be believed, we get so collectively thrown out of whack by the annual shift in time that there is a nationwide uptick in everything from depression rates to car accidents.
The Sunshine Protection Act, introduced by Senator Marco Rubio in Congress for the second time, aims to get rid of the whole process once and for all by keeping the nation on Daylight Saving Time (which we entered last weekend by turning clocks ahead one hour) year-round. The proposal has been covered in the news extensively this week, with favorable public response.
It’s definitely among the nicer approaches that have historically been taken towards regulating time changes.
In Connecticut, we went ahead and made them criminal.
Have a drink with: Elias Howe
Adventures in sewing: now with cannibals!
Ask him about: patent trolls
It’s kind of easy to knock Elias Howe, historically speaking. There is a statue of him in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he is claimed as a famous son despite the fact that he was born in Massachusetts; he is largely credited with inventing the sewing machine despite the fact that he sort of didn’t; and some biographies describe him as a hero of the Civil War despite the fact that he was a 40-year-old private.
Facial recognition technology is fun: particularly when you can log into your phone as an Animoji lion. But is it reliable, particularly when entrusted with decisions about security – and when profiling is a likely outcome? Suggestions that facial recognition technology can identify bad actors echoes the 19th century belief that phrenology could help identify criminals, and is woven through with the same social anxieties and pseudoscience. I’m over at the Washington Post’s Made by History site today digging into biometrics, phrenology and the problems with using biology to make decisions about criminal guilt, innocence or predisposition.
Have a drink with: Napoleon Sarony
Work with me, darling.
Ask him about: Oscar Wilde, cover girl
The author of an interview with the photographer Napoleon Sarony, published in the June 1895 edition of Decorator and Furnisher magazine, was clearly excited about getting to meet such a famous figure. In the style of the modern celebrity profile, with luxe asides about the subject’s choice in clothing, food or furniture, the writer gushes that Sarony’s apartment is lavishly decorated, stuffed with Rococo furniture, Latin American pottery, even an Egyptian mummy in its sarcophagus. Fat portfolios of photographs nod to Sarony’s profession, with images of “every known celebrity that has either been born or set foot upon American soil, as well as thousands of photographs of the rank and file of American Democracy.”
There is more than Sarony’s luxe eccentricity to mention, though: the article opens with a mention that the state legislature, under the thrall of Anthony Comstock’s anti-vice movement, was then entertaining the idea of a law to prohibit any representation of the nude human figure from going on display (and a catty aside that the law’s advocates were not simply seeking legislation, but “incidentally some notoriety for themselves.”).
Surely America’s most flamboyant celebrity photographer would have an opinion on the Comstock crusaders?
The key, he explained, was in portraying the nude as refined, innocent and graceful – free of seductive gazes or vulgar poses, presented as naturally as a flower in nature. Citing his own work, he explained: “I think my work proves that photography has aspects personal and individual apart from mechanical considerations. The camera and its appurtenances are, in the hands of an artist, the equivalent of the brush of the painter, the pencil of the draughtsman, and the needle of the etcher.”
He would know: the U.S. Supreme Court had told him so.
Have a drink with: The Liberty Loans Some drill, some till, and some produce the dollar bill.
Ask them about: buying World War I for Christmas
This season not only marks the centennial of the Armistice that brought an end to World War I, but also of the massive public investment campaign that made American involvement in the war possible. In four bond drives conducted in 1917 and 1918, the American public stepped up to fund the war effort by purchasing some $17 billion dollars of U.S. government securities popularly known as “Liberty Loans.”
And if you asked Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo in December 1917, he’d tell you that the hottest Christmas gift around was a Liberty Loan, because nothing screams “holiday spirit” like punching the Kaiser in the snoot.
Have a drink with: The American Voter
A high and important duty to perform.
Ask: what’s your plan for voting?
Poster, “Don’t Talk Politics in Here if You Are Not Registered.” 1986.0534.23.
We’re not alone among the world’s democracies in this fact, but Americans don’t have a great record on voter turnout, particularly when midterm elections are involved. This is not unique to the modern era, either: back in 1803, when Connecticut was considering the sort of structural political change that would lead to the passage of our 1818 Constitution, fusty Federalist judge David Daggett, writing under a pseudonym in a political pamphlet called “Facts Are Stubborn Things,” (no kidding, dude) encouraged his readers to avoid Election Day laziness:
“[G]ive your suffrages for those whom your consciences approve. Let no federalist say my town will do right without me, or my vote will not oppose the triumph of democracy. Each freeman should feel that he has a high and important duty to perform, and that in neglecting it, he is inexcusable.”
But more to the point: a reminder from the past, courtesy the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of October 10, 1905, that there are lots of ways to remind yourself to go vote tomorrow: